Feel Free: Essays, p.1Zadie Smith
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
The Autograph Man
The Embassy of Cambodia
The Book of Other People (editor)
Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays
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Copyright © 2018 by Zadie Smith
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ISBN: 9781594206252 (hc)
For Kit and Hal
For Robert B. Silvers, in memoriam
“People can be slave-ships in shoes.”
—Zora Neale Hurston
“The eyes are not windows. There are nerve impulses, but no one reads them, counts them, translates them, and ruminates about them. Hunt for as long as you want, there’s nobody home. The world is contained within you, and you’re not there.”
By the Same Author
PART I: IN THE WORLD
Northwest London Blues
Elegy for a Country’s Seasons
Fences: A Brexit Diary
On Optimism and Despair
PART II: IN THE AUDIENCE
The House That Hova Built
Brother from Another Mother
Some Notes on Attunement
Windows on the Will: Anomalisa
Dance Lessons for Writers
PART III: IN THE GALLERY
Killing Orson Welles at Midnight
“Crazy They Call Me”: On Looking at Jerry Dantzic’s Photos of Billie Holiday
Alte Frau by Balthasar Denner
Mark Bradford’s Niagara
A Bird of Few Words: Narrative Mysteries in the Paintings of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye
The Tattered Ruins of the Map: On Sarah Sze’s Centrifuge
Getting In and Out
PART IV: ON THE BOOKSHELF
Crash by J. G. Ballard
The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi
Notes on NW
The Harper’s Columns
The I Who Is Not Me
PART V: FEEL FREE
Man Versus Corpse
Meet Justin Bieber!
Love in the Gardens
The Shadow of Ideas
Find Your Beach
About the Author
I was having dinner with old friends in Rome when one of them turned to me and said: “But of course your writing so far has been a fifteen-year psychodrama.” Everybody laughed—so did I—but I was a little stung by it, and worried at the idea for a few weeks. Now here I am bringing it up in this foreword. It’s true that for years I’ve been thinking aloud—and often wondering if I’ve made myself ludicrous in one way or another. I think the anxiety comes from knowing I have no real qualifications to write as I do. Not a philosopher or sociologist, not a real professor of literature or film, not a political scientist, professional music critic or trained journalist. I’m employed in an MFA program, but have no MFA myself, and no PhD. My evidence—such as it is—is almost always intimate. I feel this—do you? I’m struck by this thought—are you? Essays about one person’s affective experience have, by their very nature, not a leg to stand on. All they have is their freedom. And the reader is likewise unusually free, because I have absolutely nothing over her, no authority. She can reject my feelings at every point, she can say: “No, I have never felt that” or “Dear Lord, the thought never crossed my mind!”
Writing exists (for me) at the intersection of three precarious, uncertain elements: language, the world, the self. The first is never wholly mine; the second I can only ever know in a partial sense; the third is a malleable and improvised response to the previous two. If my writing is a psychodrama I don’t think it is because I have, as the internet would have it, so many feels, but because the correct balance and weight to be given to each of these three elements is never self-evident to me. It’s this self—whose boundaries are uncertain, whose language is never pure, whose world is in no way “self-evident”—that I try to write from and to. My hope is for a reader who, like the author, often wonders how free she really is, and who takes it for granted that reading involves all the same liberties and exigencies as writing.
• • •
A note: I realize my somewhat ambivalent view of human selves is wholly out of fashion. These essays you have in your hands were written in England and America during the eight years of the Obama presidency and so are the product of a bygone world. It is of course hardly possible to retain any feelings of ambivalence—on either side of the Atlantic—in the face of what we now confront. Millions of more or less amorphous selves will now necessarily find themselves solidifying into protesters, activists, marchers, voters, firebrands, impeachers, lobbyists, soldiers, champions, defenders, historians, experts, critics. You can’t fight fire with air. But equally you can’t fight for a freedom you’ve forgotten how to identify. To the reader still curious about freedom I offer these essays—to be used, changed, dismantled, destroyed or ignored as necessary!
January 18, 2017
IN THE WORLD
NORTHWEST LONDON BLUES
Last time I was in Willesden Green I took my daughter to visit my mother. The sun was out. We wandered down Brondesbury Park toward the high road. The “French Market” was on, which is a slightly improbable market of French things sold in the concrete space between the pretty turreted remnants of Willesden Library (1894) and the brutal red-brick beached cruise ship known as Willesden Green Library Centre (1989), a substantial local landmark that racks up nearly five hundred thousand visits a year. We walked in the sun down the urban street to the concrete space—to market. This wasn’t like walking a shady country lane in a quaint market town ending up in a perfectly preserved eighteenth-century square. It was not even like going to one of these farmers’ markets that have sprung up all over London at the crossroads where personal wealth meets a strong interest in artisanal cheeses.
But it was still very nice. Willesden French Market sells cheap bags. It sells CDs of old-time jazz and rock and roll. It sells umbrellas and artificial flowers. It sells ornaments and knickknacks and doodahs, which are not always obviously French in theme or nature. It sells water pistols. It sells French breads and pastries for not much more than you’d pay for the baked goods in Greggs down Kilburn High Road. It sells cheese, but of the
Everybody knows that if people hang around for any length of time in an urban area without purpose they are likely to become “antisocial.” And indeed there were four homeless drunks sitting on one of the library’s strange architectural protrusions, drinking Special Brew. Perhaps in a village they would be sitting under a tree, or have already been driven from the area by a farmer with a pitchfork. I do not claim to know what happens in villages. But here in Willesden they were sitting on their ledge and the rest of us were congregating for no useful purpose in the unlovely concrete space, simply standing around in the sunshine, like some kind of community. From this vantage point we could look ahead to the turrets, or left to the Victorian police station (1865), or right to the half-ghostly façade of the Spotted Dog (1893).
We could have a minimal sense of continuity with what came before. Not so much as the people of Hampstead must have, to be sure, or the folk who live in pretty market towns all over the country, but here and there in Willesden the past lingers on. We’re glad that it does. Which is not to say that we are overly nostalgic about architecture (look at the library!) but we find it pleasant to remember that we have as much right to a local history as anyone, even if many of us arrived here only recently and from every corner of the globe.
On market day we permit ourselves the feeling that our neighborhood, for all its catholic mix of people and architecture, remains a place of some beauty that deserves minimal preservation and care. It’s a nice day out, is my point. Still, there’s only so long a toddler will stand around watching her grandmother greet all the many people in Willesden her grandmother knows. My daughter and I took a turn. You can’t really take a turn in the high road so we went backward, into the library center. Necessarily backward in time, though I didn’t—couldn’t—bore my daughter with my memories: she is still young and below nostalgia’s reach. Instead I will bore you. Studied in there, at that desk. Met a boy over there, where the phone boxes used to be. Went, with school friends, in there, to see The Piano and Schindler’s List (cinema now defunct), and afterward we went in there, for coffee (café now defunct), and had an actual argument about art, an early inkling that there might be a difference between a film with good intentions and a good film.
Meanwhile my daughter is running madly through the center’s esplanade, with another toddler who has the same idea. And then she reverses direction and heads straight for Willesden Bookshop, an independent shop that rents space from the council and provides—no matter what Brent Council may claim—an essential local service. It is run by Helen. Helen is an essential local person. I would characterize her essentialness in the following way: “Giving the people what they didn’t know they wanted.” Important category. Different from the concept popularized by Mr. Murdoch: “Giving the people what they want.” Everyone is by now familiar with the Dirty Digger’s version of the social good—we’ve had thirty years of it. Helen’s version is different and necessarily perpetrated on a far smaller scale.
Helen gives the people of Willesden what they didn’t know they wanted. Smart books, strange books, books about the country they came from, or the one that they’re in. Children’s books with children in them that look at least a bit like the children who are reading them. Radical books. Classical books. Weird books. Popular books. She reads a lot, she has recommendations. Hopefully, you have a Helen in a bookshop near you and so understand what I’m talking about. In 1999 I didn’t know I wanted to read David Mitchell until Helen pointed me to Ghostwritten. And I have a strong memory of buying a book by Sartre here, because it was on the shelf and I saw it. I don’t know how I could have known I wanted Sartre without seeing it on that shelf—that is, without Helen putting it there. Years later, I had my first book launch in this bookshop and when it got too full, mainly with local friends of my mother, we all walked up the road to her flat and carried on over there.
And it was while getting very nostalgic about all this sort of thing with Helen, and wondering about the possibility of having another launch in the same spot, that I first heard of the council’s intention to demolish the library center, along with the bookshop and the nineteenth-century turrets and the concrete space and the ledge on which the four drunks sat. To be replaced with private luxury flats, a greatly reduced library, “retail space,” and no bookshop. (Steve, the owner, could not afford the commercial rise in rent. The same thing happened to his Kilburn Bookshop, which closed recently after thirty years.) My mum wandered in, with some cheese. The three of us lamented this change and the cultural vandalism we felt it represented. Or, if you take the opposite view, we stood around pointlessly, like the Luddite, fiscally ignorant liberals we are, complaining about the inevitable.
A few days later I got back on a plane to New York, where I teach for a part of each year. Logically it should be easier, when a person is far away from home, to take bad news from home on the chin, but anyone who has spent time in a community of expats knows the exact opposite is true: no one could be more infuriated by events in Rome than the Italian kid serving your cappuccino on Broadway. Without the balancing setting of everyday life all you have is the news, and news by its nature is generally bad. Quickly you become hysterical. Consequently I can’t tell whether the news coming out of my home is really as bad as it appears to be, or whether objects perceived from three thousand miles away are subject to exaggerations of size and color. Did a Labour-run council really send heavies into Kensal Rise Library, in a dawn raid, to strip the place of books and Mark Twain’s wall plaque? Are the people of Willesden Green seriously to lose their bookshop, be offered a smaller library (for use by more patrons from other libraries Brent has closed), an ugly block of luxury flats—and told that this is “culture”?
Yes. That’s all really happening. With minimal consultation, with bully-boy tactics, secrecy and a little outright deceit. No doubt the local councilors find themselves in a difficult position: the percentage cuts in Brent are among the highest in the country, mandated by the central government. But the chronic mismanagement of finances is easily traced back to the previous Labour government, and so around and around goes the baton of blame. The Willesden Green plan as it stands so obviously gives the developers an extremely profitable land deal—while exempting them from the need to build social housing—that you feel a bit like a child pointing it out. In this economy who but a child would expect anything else?
Reading these intensely local stories alongside the national story creates another effect that may be only another kind of optical illusion: mirroring. For here in the Leveson Inquiry into the “ethics of the British press” you find all the same traits displayed, only writ large. Minimal consultation, bully-boy tactics, secrecy, outright deceit. Are some of the largest decisions of British political life really being made at the private dinner tables of a tiny elite? Why is Jeremy Hunt, the secretary of state “for culture, Olympics, media and sport,” texting Murdoch? What did Rebekah promise the prime minister and the prime minister promise Rebekah in that pretty little market town
And so I recognize myself to be an intensely naive person. Most novelists are, despite frequent pretensions to deep sociopolitical insight. And I retain a particular naivety concerning the British state, which must seem comical to many people, particularly younger people. I can only really account for it by reaching back again, briefly, into the past. It’s a short story about debt—because I owe the state, quite a lot. Some people owe everything they have to the bank accounts of their parents. I owe the state. Put simply, the state educated me, fixed my leg when it was broken, and gave me a grant that enabled me to go to university. It fixed my teeth (a bit) and found housing for my veteran father in his dotage. When my youngest brother was run over by a truck it saved his life and in particular his crushed right hand, a procedure that took half a year, and which would, on the open market—so a doctor told me at the time—have cost a million pounds. Those were the big things, but there were also plenty of little ones: my subsidized sports center and my doctor’s office, my school music lessons paid for with pennies, my university fees. My NHS glasses aged nine. My NHS baby aged thirty-three. And my local library. To steal another writer’s title: England made me. It has never been hard for me to pay my taxes because I understand it to be the repaying of a large, in fact, an almost incalculable, debt.
Things change. I don’t need the state now as I once did; and the state is not what it once was. It is complicit in this new, shared global reality in which states deregulate to privatize gain and re-regulate to nationalize loss. A process begun with verve by a Labour government is now being perfected by David Cameron’s Tory–Lib Dem coalition. The charming tale of benign state intervention described above is now relegated to the land of fairy tales: not just naive but actually fantastic. Having one’s own history so suddenly and abruptly made unreal is an experience of a whole generation of British people, who must now wander around like so many ancient mariners boring foreigners about how they went to university for free and could once find a National Health dentist on their high street.
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